Growled vocals can be traced back centuries ago to Viking culture. In the 10th century, an Arab merchant visiting Denmark commented on the local music as follows: “Never before I have heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig. The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.”
In Hildegard of Bingen’s allegorical morality play Ordo Virtutum, the role of the Devil uniquely does not employ melodic singing, but is performed in a manner which Hildegard specifies as strepitus diaboli and which is often taken to mean a low and growling voice.
The use of growling, “monstrous” vocals for ominous effect in rock music can be traced at least as far back as “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in 1956. Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells, Part Two”, from 1973, contains a section from 11:55 to 16:30 featuring extensive use of guttural vocals which are very close in style to the modern “death growl”.
In 1969 and the early 1970s, the song “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson is notable for its heavily distorted vocals sung by Greg Lake. The songs “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath and “One of These Days” by Pink Floyd both contain brief passages of ominously growled, low-pitched vocals (in both cases studio-manipulated) against a heavy background of rock riffs. Other examples are Roger Waters’ screams in some Pink Floyd songs, such as “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” (1967), “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” (1968). Punk rock bands like The Clash and the Stiff Little Fingers also regularly employed gruff sounding vocals, however nothing like the death growl common in metal music today.